Doing the job of the cinematographer. Description.
I once worked as a story editor for a 2D animated series called Petit Potam for Marina Productions. For reasons that probably had more to do with the budget than the creative thrust of the series, the producers had carefully designed the whole village in which the episodes took place before any scripts were written. I was given a detailed map of the village, and told that this was where the stories had to take place. It gave me details of where each of the characters lived, where the railway station and the school were, and the bridges under which the river flowed. This made my life easier in some ways, in that I did not have to describe the locations, but was extremely limiting in others. Several times scripts had to be rewritten for reasons that were purely geographical, as I received notes along the lines of “Petit Potam wouldn’t pass his friend’s house on the way back from school because it’s in the other direction”.
Despite this, the series was very successful, and, with my writing partner, Andrew Offiler, I went on to write a Petit Potam theatrical feature, in which I had the opportunity to invent more extravagant locations and situations.
How much description you need to write is obviously going to depend on how much freedom you have to create the world the characters live in, and also the nature of the series itself. One of the joys of writing “SuperTed” was that the series demanded that he fly off to different locations to help people or creatures in distress. He not only travelled the world, but flew in his rocket to the Planet Spot. Apart from those scenes in his tree house, in the rocket, or in his space station, there was very little re-use of backgrounds, and everything could be invented. This is the joy of 2D, where you can create new locations for the cost of a few backgrounds and layouts. The same is not true of stop motion, where a new character might cost £10k or more, and a new set or vehicle much more than that. In the writer’s bible for Igam Ogam, our current stop motion series, we include photographs of the characters and sets, because, although we have a couple of more generic sets that can be re-dressed, the numbers of sets and characters are fixed. And although CG allows a lot more flexibility than stop motion, the creation of new locations is labour intensive and so expensive.
Obviously, if something has already been designed, or already exists, there is no need to describe it. I have already mentioned how your script needs to summon up a visual picture for the storyboard artist, but that does not mean that you have to cram it with detail. Put yourself in the story artist’s shoes. If your character is hanging from the Statue of Liberty, there is no need to describe the statue, since we all know what it looks like. But we do need to say whether he is clinging onto Liberty’s nose, or whether his jumper has caught on the tip of the flame and he is literally hanging from a thread. If the scene is happening in a London Street, then we may need to know if it’s full of skyscrapers, shops, or in a leafy suburb. We might want to get a feel for the mood of the street. Is it dark? What is the weather like? Is it sparkling new, or seedy and run down? You need to paint a picture in a few words, to give us a feel for what is happening. And remember who inhabits this world. If your London street is being explored by a dog, you probably do not need to describe anything more than three feet off the ground.
You need to describe the important characters in each shot, and the important features of the setting. You have to paint a picture for the storyboard artist. You do not have to describe everything in minute detail.
Here is a still from The Fantastic Mr Fox. This banquet scene is crammed with detail, and probably took weeks, if not months, to shoot. If you were scripting this scene, you would paint a picture of the banquet, mentioning the long table loaded with food, the large white cake, the characters sitting and standing, drinking, eating and chatting. You might describe a couple of pieces of business to give a flavour of what is happening, and you would certainly describe the action of Mr Fox raising his glass for a toast. The intricate detail you would leave to the director and storyboard artist.
Too much detail will make your script difficult to read, and create confusion about what is happening in the story. Realistically, however persuasive an image you are creating, the director and storyboard artist will have their own ideas, and either add or change what you have written.
Here’s another picture.
If you were writing this scene as a script, you would describe a small spacecraft landing in the distance on a dark, barren planet, its two headlights throwing beams along the sandy bottom of a deep ravine that cuts through a mountain range. Three astronauts walk towards where, in the foreground, half hidden in a cavern, looms a large, menacing shape, a glass sphere surrounded by metal claws. It almost looks as if it is watching them… You wouldn’t have to describe either the spacecraft, or the creature (vehicle?) in the cavern because that is the art director’s job.
Here are a couple of examples from scripts I have written.
This one is setting up a location:
We PAN past a couple of conventional-looking planets, then some gravestones float by. SFX: EERIE GHOSTLY LAUGHTER… An assortment of bones float past, some obviously human, some obviously not, then a carrot, and a dazed chicken, a three-headed calf, a foetus in a jar of formaldehyde…. This is the debris that floats through this part of space…
Into the FOREGROUND of the SHOT floats suddenly the S S Karloff, a space ship that looks eerily like Norman Bates’s house in Psycho.
You can find this 1 minute 40 seconds into Psi-5 if you scroll down on http://www.calon.tv/categories/20091216_1 . You will notice all the objects have been replaced with equally ridiculous alternatives. The director has understood what is important about the scene, and interpreted it.
Here’s another example. This time from a script for a feature film about the Pied Piper, which, unfortunately, was never made. I think it speaks for itself:
We PULL BACK from a CLOSE-UP of STELLA's face to show LEWIS, STELLA and JULIUS standing high on a plateau, in a pre-dawn twilight. The BIRD flutters above their heads. Beneath them, several miles away, the PIPER's rambling palace rises from the plain.
A silhouetted figure stands out against the ridge of this promontory. We see him raise a pipe to his lips. Out of the darkness, we hear the soft strains of a flute, and the promontory begins to pulsate with light. We can begin to recognise the crumbling turrets of a rambling palace.
The flute music elaborates the theme, growing more confident, and a rich, colourful landscape rolls out from the palace like a carpet. Grass, trees, little hills and valleys roll out, breaking against the edge of the cave like a wave, and spreading a rich blue colour up the walls and roof to form a sky.
There is a JOYFUL SHOUT. We PAN DOWN the wall of the palace to see the Children burst out of a door, spilling out onto a beautiful multi-coloured meadow. They SHOUT and rag each other. As the countryside unfurls underneath their feet, they get caught up in it. They rampage on the unfolding grass and trees…
Next week: What the scriptwriter needs to know about animation timing.